The Buddha taught that we should have compassion for all living beings: every bird, animal, fish, insect... and human on this planet. This is not easy. Leaving aside the thorny question of what we are supposed to eat if we take this idea to its logical extreme, let's focus on people, because that's complicated enough. For example, it's easy to feel compassion for those we love or like. We can forgive those closest to us pretty much anything, because we have such a strong bond with them.
Our friends, parents, siblings, children, spouse – if we are lucky enough to have good relationships with these people, feeling compassion for them is not hard. But what about that colleague you don't get on with at work – the one who talks about you behind your back? Or the guy who just cut you up in traffic, nearly causing a nasty accident?
Taking it one step further, how about politicians like Donald Trump who promote violence and racism? Should we really feel compassion for him? And harder still, how about a murderous dictator like Stalin or Hitler – surely they are the last people on earth we should feel compassion for.
As someone who is passionate about Buddhist psychology's depth, richness and practical wisdom, I have long struggled with this idea. But as far as I understand it, the Buddha would say that we should feel compassion for everyone, even those we find abhorrent, because the alternative is to fill our minds with hatred, anger and hostility, which he called poisons of the mind.
If I spend my days hating Trump, who suffers? Not him, for sure. I can fundamentally disagree with his odious behaviour without succumbing to hatred – instead, I can wish for him to change, to become a less hate-filled and harmful person, because that will reduce the suffering he causes in the world.
And I can't believe that anyone who is so full of anger and hatred is truly happy; so I can have compassion for their unhappiness without approving of the person in any way.
Compassion for yourself
If this all seems hard to grasp, surely it's easier to think about feeling compassion for yourself? Sadly, in my experience of helping people with all sorts of psychological problems, this is neither simple nor easy. Time and time again I am saddened by the harshly critical way in which people talk to themselves in their minds.
They call themselves names like 'idiot' or 'failure', say they are 'pathetic' or 'crazy' or worse. And this, of course, creates suffering – research shows that harsh self-criticism is linked with depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, eating disorders, anger-management problems, and more.
So a key focus with all of my clients is encouraging them to be kinder to themselves. Mindfulness meditation really helps with this, as do a wide range of cognitive and schema therapy techniques. But you can start today, simply by catching yourself using harsh words when you speak or think about yourself. Ask the simple question, 'Would I talk to my best friend like this?' If the answer is no (and it almost always is), try speaking to yourself a little more kindly. It could make a huge difference to the way you feel day to day.
And if you would like to learn more about compassion, email email@example.com